Cornwall abounds in ancient myths and legends and these are the best 15 castles in Cornwall and the nearby Isles of Scilly you can visit that hold tales of yore (old).
This article is close to home for me as my family is from the Isles of Scilly, a few hours ferry ride from Cornwall. Even though the Isles of Scilly is not technically in Cornwall they have a fascinating history of their own with castle fortifications so I’ve added a few of those castles here as well.
Many of these castles are maintained by English Heritage and the National Trust in the UK whereas others are privately owned.
Tip: If you’re an overseas visitor to England you can get an English Heritage Pass (get one with that link) that gives you free entry to over 100 historical attractions in England, including some of the castles in England listed here. It’s great value for money.
There’s a map of the castles in Cornwall at the end of the article to help you plan a visit.
Castles in Cornwall:
St Michael’s Mount
St Michael’s Mount dates back to the 11th century and was initially a monastery. It was converted into a castle over the centuries for defensive purposes, particularly against the French and the Holy Roman Empire.
It’s only accessible by foot on a causeway at low tide or on a small boat at high tide which makes it great fun to get to. Once on the battlements at the top, you get epic views across the Cornish coast.
The castle is packed full of history which you can discover when walking around. The main dining room area is the most impressive part of the inside as well as the historic chapel.
Outside on the ramparts you get great views across the Cornish coast and getting up to the castle you ascend stairs past a display of cannons.
It’s one of the best castles in Cornwall to visit, if not the best and is open for visits.
In the old Cornish language, the castle is called Karrek Loos yn Koos.
Tintagel Castle has been around since the 13th century and is in a ruined state today but it’s the legend of the castle’s location that makes it one of the best castles in Cornwall to visit, especially if you have an interest in Cornish myths and legends.
The area where the castle was built is told in poems like Idylls of the King that alleges that it’s the legendary castle in which King Arthur was born and is part of Arthurian legend.
As I said these days the castle is in ruins but it is still one of the best castles in Cornwall to go and see.
You can descend a flight of stairs on the side of the cliff down to a magical cove below.
Tintagel Castle is a must-visit if in North Cornwall and is open for visitors.
In the Cornish language, the castle is called Dintagel.
Pendennis Castle is near Falmouth and is one of 2 castles in Cornwall built for the same purpose, the other being St Mawes (see below) to defend the mouth of the River Fal. It was built in the mid-16th century by Henry VIII to defend against attacks by France and Spain.
Technically it was an artillery fort. The castle took part in the English Civil War where a group of royalists held out under siege from Parliamentary forces.
Much later on it took part in defending the area against German Air Force attacks during the Second World War.
These days it’s one of the best castles in Cornwall to visit and it’s also easy to reach being so close to Falmouth and is open for visits.
In the Cornish language, the castle is called Penn Dinas.
St Mawes Castle
St Mawes is the sister castle of Pendennis Castle and was also built for the same purposes of defending the River Fal.
It has a four-story central tower and has been in military use since the early 16th century. It basically has the same history as Pendennis Castle so I won’t go into that.
It’s also open for visitors.
In the old Cornish language, the castle was called Kastel Lannvowsedh.
Caerhays Castle is technically a fortified manor house near St Austell by the coast and not a real castle in the true sense of the word.
The original manor dates to the 13th century but what you see now is largely a restoration from the early 19th century.
Its appearance is that of a Norman castle. These days it has a lovely garden to explore and you can visit the castle as well which has great views of the Cornish coast.
After St Michael’s Mount, I would say that this is one of the best castles in Cornwall as far as appearances go and it’s open for visits.
Launceston Castle’s origins are as a fort in the 11th century and expanded on to a Norman castle design when the stone structure was done in the 12th century and is what you see today.
The castle didn’t have much happen during its history and started going into ruin after only a few centuries. This is one of the oldest castles in Cornwall.
It’s in a ruined state now but open for visitors.
Restormel Castle is, like Launceston Castle, a Norman castle from the early 12th century located at a strategic point on the River Fowey.
It’s a perfect example of a circular shell keep and the outer walls are impressive even today, although the insides of the castle are in complete ruin.
Along with Launceston Castle, it’s one of the oldest castles in Cornwall. t’s open for visitors.
In the Cornish language, the castle is called Kastel Rostorrmel.
Trematon Castle is like Restormel Castle and Launceston Castle in that it has a similar design and is a motte and bailey castle. Its origins also date back to the 12th century after the time of the Norman conquest.
It’s located near Saltash and has great views across the Plymouth Sound.
Interesting historical fact: Sir Francis Drake’s treasure was hidden in the castle upon his return to England in 1580 for a short time. Gold and jewels from plundered Spanish ships!
Open for visits.
St Catherine’s Castle
St Catherine’s Castle was, like Pendennis Castle and St Mawes, built in the 16th century for defense against French attack.
But instead of guarding the River Fal, St Catherines’s is located on the River Fowey for defensive purposes there.
Like quite a few of the castles in Cornwall, it’s not that impressive to look at but the history and scenic setting make it worth visiting.
It’s open for visits.
In the Cornish language, the castle is called Kastel S. Kattrin.
Founded in the early 16th century, Pengersick Castle has its fair share of history going for it and is located in a quiet scenic cove between Penzance and Helston, not far from St Michael’s Mount.
One of England’s most haunted castles? Possibly. The most haunted castle in Cornwall? Definitely! Pengersick Castle is renowned for its ghosts and adds to the castle’s myth.
There’s the so-called “Dark Lord of Pengersick” (what a name) or to be more precise, John Milliton, who built the tower of the castle. It’s said that he was into the dark arts and summoned a demon to the top of the aforementioned tower.
Scary enough? There’s more. How about a group of sunken sailor ghosts from 1527? They sank aboard the ship St Anthony and are now said to be seen wandering around the castle grounds hunting for their old treasure.
Oh, and there is the demon dog and a black cat that chases rat ghosts. You get the idea.
It’s privately owned and you will have to book a tour if you want to visit.
Carn Brea Castle
Carn Brea Castle dates to the 14th century as a chapel and was then converted into a castle in 1790. Today is a private residence near Redruth run as a restaurant since 1980, so it’s great to visit if you want to have a meal in a scenic location in a historic castle.
You should book ahead for a meal as you don’t want to go to the effort to get up there only to find all tables taken as it is a small place inside. They are open from 6 pm to 10 pm, 7 days a week.
They do middle eastern cuisine which sounds delicious!
Open for visits if you book dinner there.
Definitely the oldest ‘castle’ on this list and in a very ruined state, as Chun Castle is around 2500 years old.
It’s been described as a castle but is in reality a ruined hillfort. Yes, it has a lot of history going for it but honestly, there is not much to see other than a pile of rubble where the walls used to be.
I would only visit here if you have a very keen interest in fortress history. However, it is in a scenic spot on the Chun Downs so if you want to get out for a good walk in a nice spot then it’s worth going.
Open for visits as it’s a completely open area and free. One of the best castles in Cornwall for ancient history and a walk.
In the Cornish language, it’s called Chi an Woon.
Free to enter.
An extra one for the castles in Cornwall as you can’t visit it, so I’m not recommending it for that, but if you want to rent a castle to stay in all for yourself then this is it:
Doyden Castle is a private residence and a holiday home offering a one-bedroom for rent and is not open for visiting unless you book to stay there.
But you can get nearby if you are not staying there and it is very scenically located on the Port Quin headland, making for some great photo opportunities and excellent coastal walks.
It was built in the early 19th century.
Castles in the Isles of Scilly:
Now we’re on to proper home turf: The Isles of Scilly!
Star Castle dates back to the 16-17th centuries and was built, along with its massive garrison walls, to defend the harbour area of St Mary’s island against invasion. If an enemy were to take this harbour area they could then easily launch attacks onto mainland England. It was an important castle.
The castle itself is quite small and these days it’s a castle hotel so apart from having a quick look around the small ramparts you won’t be able to see the rooms, although you can book a dinner in their dining hall or have a drink in the “Dungeon Bar.”
The actual main draw there is the aforementioned massive garrison wall that stretches out from the castle and around St Mary’s headland and makes for an excellent 30 minutes walk around.
If you have children they will love all the old cannons still on display in the fortifications there.
You can book a room in Star Castle if you want as like I said it’s a hotel these days. I spent a night there and enjoyed the atmosphere and history. It’s where I got married to my wife. Want to get married in a castle? You can do it there.
It’s free to wander around the garrison area.
What to say about the small Cromwell’s Castle? It might not appear like much but it’s got history behind it and the location is breathtaking.
Funnily enough, it was made with stones from an earlier castle on the hill above it called, King Charles I Castle (see below). If you know your English Civil War history you will appreciate the irony in that. If you don’t, quick lesson: Cromwell beat King Charles I in the English Civil War and had King Charles I beheaded.
It was built to defend New Grimsby Harbour from attack although no major naval historic battles took place. It has a tower you can climb to the top of and a cannon platform at the base.
Tip: Have a beer (or whatever) in The New Inn pub, around a 15-minute walk from the castle to relax.
Fact: The Isles of Scilly has some of the highest density of shipwrecks in the UK including the Scilly Naval Disaster of 1707 when the HMS Association and other ships perished in a storm of the deadly Western Rocks.
It’s free to enter.
And just one extra as its right above Cromwells Castle:
King Charles I Castle
The aforementioned King Charles I Castle is basically an artillery fort built in the 16th century to defend the harbour from a possible attack by French forces.
The stupidity of this castle is that it was built to defend the harbour from enemy ships but was built too high as the cannons could not fire down.
Like I said it’s just above Cromwells Castle so all the advice given for that is valid for this castle too.
It’s free to enter.
Getting to the Isles of Scilly
The isles of Scilly can be reached by a ferry from Penzance that leaves at 9 in the morning and returns at 4 pm, taking around 2 and a half hours each way and costing 100 pounds for the return journey. Small propellor planes fly from Newquay and Lands End costing around 115 pounds each way.
Given the cost and time to get there, it really is best to spend at least one night on the islands.
Map of the castles in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly.
Castles In Cornwall
If you make it to Cornwall or the Isles of Scilly these are the castles you should go and see. Or at least 1-2 of them!
If you are in Cornwall or visiting and just want to choose one of these castles in Cornwall then I would recommend St Michael’s Mount as the best choice.
For more reading on castles in England take a look at my post the 25 best medieval castles in England.
The books I mention below are on Amazon and are affiliate links and I get a small commission if you purchase through the link at no extra cost to you.
For a great book on the history of castles in Britain take a look at this book from one of my favourite historians, Marc Morris: Castle: A History of the Buildings that Shaped Medieval Britain.
Another book I’ve researched for you that I think will be good if you have a big interest in English castles or castles in general is: English Castles: England’s most dramatic castles and strongholds.
For a view of what life was like in a medieval castle, you will find the classic book Life in a Medieval Castle interesting.
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